Protect The 1st has long supported the people of the Apache Stronghold as they’ve faced the gut-churning prospect that the government will allow a foreign mining consortium to transform their ancient site of worship into a giant crater as long as the Washington Mall and deep as two Washington Monuments.
Over the summer, a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a ruling that refused to protect Oak Flat, a large swath of the Tonto National Forest that the federal government recognized in a 19th century treaty as land held sacred by the Apache. The court ruled that the transfer of this land to a copper mining consortium resulting from a midnight deal in Congress did not substantially burden the First Amendment right to religious exercise of the Apache. Protect The 1st objected that the absolute destruction of a religious minority’s site of worship, the Apache’s equivalent of the Vatican or Temple Mount, was a “substantial burden” of the right of religious freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).
In our view, the Ninth’s ruling would not only destroy the centerpiece of one religion, but would erode all religious protections guaranteed by RFRA. We weren’t alone in our thinking: Judge Marsha Berzon of the Ninth Circuit dissented, called her peers’ ruling “absurd,” “illogical,” “disingenuous,” and “incoherent.”
In August, the judges of the Ninth Circuit called for a vote to rehear the case en banc, in front of a full court of 11 judges. Such requests for a rehearing are exceedingly rare, limited to about one-half of one percent of cases. Legal observers welcomed the maneuver as a chance for dissenting judges to get their opinions on record as fodder for a bid for certification for oral argument before the U.S. Supreme Court. Few legal observers gave Oak Flat a realistic chance for an actual rehearing.
The Apache people, undaunted, responded in a positive and hopeful way by organizing a caravan to San Francisco to urge the court to go ahead and reconsider its ruling.
On Thursday, the full court voted to grant Oak Flat a full en banc rehearing.
Gene Schaerr, PT1 general counsel, congratulated the Becket law firm for its strong representation of the Apache.
“This is a very encouraging day for religious liberty, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and the rights of religious minorities in America,” Schaerr said. “It is remarkable that the Ninth Circuit itself sought this review of its decision.
“We congratulate the Ninth for this bold decision and look forward with enthusiasm to supporting the Apache’s case.”